What Does Changing Your Mind Say About You?

imagesWell, that could mean that you are curious, intellectually honest, and grounded in a strong sense of self that is not tethered to old and false beliefs to feel secure.  Many people feel a sense of shame when they retreat from a position or opinion they hold dear.  Once we have a strong vested interest and identification with our thoughts, the incessant need to be right leads us to fight to the death against people who disagree (especially our loved ones), as if our very survival were in jeopardy.   

The problem with a mindset that runs observations through a rigid preconceived worldview is that it stifles our growth and kills relationships. And tragically, in the case of the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel in advance of our entry, it caused the death of an entire generation and altered the very course of Jewish history for millennia. 

The Fight against Smallness

Jewish sacred texts describe newly created Adam as filling the whole world, but that after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, he became small.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, the spies reported back: “We are unable to go up against the people for they are stronger than we….. All the men we saw in it are men of stature…. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”[i]  Since the spies were able to completely avoid detection, this was pure projection on their part, a surmised fearful interpretation that was nevertheless reported as an absolute fact of reality.  Because the spies’ self-image and misperceptions were so warped, their judgments and conclusions were erroneous and fatal.  They suffered from a case of “motivated reasoning.”  Unfortunately, such biased thinking is mostly unconscious and pervasive in that we all do it.  The good news, however, is that with the proper mindset, it can be prevented.       

Soldier versus Scout

In a fascinating Ted talk, Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong, Julia Galef describes two mindsets: “Soldier” and “Scout.”  Soldiers are sent into battle to defend, protect, and defeat the enemy.  The mission of a scout, on the other hand, is not to attack or defend, but to understand.  Thus, a scout will map terrain, identify obstacles and threats, and seek out vantage points, in the quest for accurate and honest information.  Both the soldier and the scout are essential, with each playing a vital role.  Described by Galef as two different mindsets, however, each acts as a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives.  As in all matters of a dual nature, one must know when to be what.  Sent by Moses to scout out the land, the spies merely defended their own views and biases, and thus, they strayed from their mission.

Scout’s Honor

Shelach lecha, the command that God gave to Moses to send out the spies, means “send out – for yourself.”  Thus, when we act as scouts leaving what is known, going to the unknown, and willingly seeing what is truthfully there, it is really for our benefit.   

The next time someone criticizes you, disagrees with you or is just plain different, resist the habitual urge to defend and attack.  Rather, look within to see whether there is a grain of truth to the criticism.  Consider whether there is another point of view to be had, and for goodness sake, stop being angry at those who are simply not the same as you.  And the next time someone upsets you, don’t just write them off, or dismiss their complaints with the easy conclusion that they are wrong or irrational.  We all make assumptions that are inaccurate, unfounded, and self-referential, (i.e. I wouldn’t do that; therefore neither should you). Instead, try to find out what is really bugging them.  Ask for help in understanding the issue and sincerely inquire as to what you could do to avoid causing them pain.   

There are definitely times and situations which call on us to marshal the soldier mindset.  It is said that those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.  On the other hand, changing our mind in response to a newly emerging truth is not a weakness, but the strength of having an open mind willing to grow.  Thus, we can heal from those false beliefs that make us feel small, and we and our relationships can become big, growing into the potential we were meant to have from the beginning of time.   

 

[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 13:31-33.

 

 

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Shelach – 5 Steps to Better Relationships

“In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent.”

– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

But…

 Have you ever been on the wrong end of an unwanted question, such as, “Will you marry me?” Or, “Will you be my date for the prom?” Or something less serious, such as, “Hey, can you do me a huge favor?”

 If the answer is “no”, there is going to be a “but” somewhere in that sentence, such as, “I really love you – but – I’m just not in love with you.” Or, “you’re such a great guy – but – I’m already going with Mr. Wrong.” Or, “I’d love to help you out, but I think I have to do my colonoscopy prep that night.”

 And no matter how nice or apologetic or convincing the first part of the sentence is, for the listener, it’s only what comes after the “but” that matters, because that’s where the truth of the message lies.

 And so, it’s hard to believe – but – this one innocuous word, “but” is responsible for the downfall of the generation that left Egypt and it caused them to be condemned to die in the desert.

 If you don’t know the story, the Jewish people had just left Mount Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments and were poised to enter what was then known as the Land of the Canaanites. The people were nervous and didn’t know what they were up against, and so they asked Moses to appoint a group of men to go spy out the land.

 After forty days the spies returned and issued a glowing report. “It’s a land filled with milk and honey. Here are its fruits.” And then they said the word “efes” (which means “but”) after which they painted such a negative picture of the land, that people were scared stiff and wept through the night, thus sealing their fate that where not only would they not enter the land, but future calamities (such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples) would occur on the anniversary of that date.  

The Weight of Criticism

We often mix compliments with criticisms and wonder why the listener is offended.

I gave my son a compliment about his appearance, but I ended the sentence with criticism.   “Mother giveth and Mother taketh away,” he said. And I was surprised. After all, I said something nice – also – so why the drama?

 Plain and simple, it’s what follows the “but” that counts. And we can’t neutralize or offset a criticism with a compliment. It’s not an even wash because we don’t hear or care about the compliment. Evolutionists will explain that we are wired to focus on negativity because the negative carries valuable information about possible danger.  

Whatever the reason, a ratio of 1:1 (compliment/criticism) will destroy the quality of your relationships as surely as it destroyed that generation of the Jewish people. So can we ever criticize? Of course we can, and sometimes we must, but there are ways to do it without harming the relationship.

 In a business setting, there is something called the “Losada Principle,” which tells us that unless a negative or critical remark is offset by at least three positive comments, the work environment is considered toxic, and employees will not thrive and be productive.

 In personal relationships, the ratio is a bit higher. A critical or negative comment needs to be offset with 3-5 positive comments. Dip consistently below that ratio in your marriage, and your relationship is in peril, because you are statistically headed for a divorce.

So here’s my advice:

  1. If you must say something critical (and sometimes you must) make an effort to offset it with multiple positive remarks.
  1. If you must say two contradictory things, switch the order so that the nice comment follows the “but.” For example: “You did a great job cleaning your room, but the bathroom is a mess” – versus – “The bathroom is a mess, but you did a great job cleaning your room.” Do you hear the difference in those approaches?
  1. After you get the hang of that, try to stop talking after the compliment. “You did a great job cleaning your room.” Full stop. The bathroom is another conversation for another time. Don’t ruin the compliment.
  1. Don’t ruin the compliments you receive. When I get a compliment about a meal I prepared, for example, I often would deflect it with a “but,” such as “but the chicken is too dry.” Don’t diminish yourself and make the person giving you a compliment feel silly for doing so.
  1. And finally, consciously transform the “but” from “destructive” to “constructive.” “I hear that your teacher is a demanding perfectionist, but it’s going to make you up your game.” Or, “I don’t know how I can deal with this, but I know it’s going to make me stronger.” Use the “but” to focus on the positive aspect of a challenging situation.

If only the spies could have read this blog, Jewish history could have been completely different! Let us not make the same mistake in our lives, and instead, pay attention to the “but” and infuse our relationships with conscious kindness and create a legacy of positivity.

Internalize & Actualize

  1. Think about a recent argument you had. What could you have said differently that would have changed the outcome of that interaction? What can you say now to help rectify it? 
  1. Think about someone you are likely to criticize. Now write down five positive attributes or compliments you could give that person that would be sincere. This week say one of those compliments daily and then write down any changes you notice from that person.
  1. The way we talk to ourselves is just as critical as the way we talk to other people. Using the 3-5 compliment ration per criticism, write down something negative you often think or say to yourself. Then following that, write down 3-5 compliments you can give yourself (without a “but”) to help offset the damage from that negative statement.